Roaming around limestone karsts once again… Can you ever get bored with these views? Naaaah… Impossible!

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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Ninh Binh
August 11th 2013
Published: October 21st 2013
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very skilled indeed! very skilled indeed! very skilled indeed!

around Tam Coc
I have to say that at the time we were booking a bus to Ninh Binh I had some serious doubts whether we would be back on time from Halong Bay to catch it on the same day. After all we had only 1 hour between being dropped off at the office and catching a bus further on. And so far I don’t think any of the buses (or trains) we travelled with in South East Asia arrived on time at their destination…. So I was more than surprised when we arrived at the tourist office in Hanoi right on time! We would be able to get to Ninh Binh on the same day after all! Happy days! 😊 It was supposed to be only 2 hour journey to Ninh Binh which only made me think ‘Thank God!’ after seeing the bus… First of all there were more people than seats… Since I think we were the only ones getting off at Ninh Binh (the rest was heading straight to Hue), I thought that we would have ‘the pleasure’ of sitting in the aisles but a few extra beds seemed to have appeared out of nowhere… basically they put matrasses between the upper beds! They seemed to be holding just fine for now, I wondered how it would work on the bumpy roads though… Thankfully we got some ‘decent’ beds, unfortunately next to a toilet…but then I guess the toilet was so smelly that wherever you were sitting you would still be able to know its presence… I was repeating to myself ‘2 hours, only 2 hours…’. In the end it took a bit longer than 2 hours though, 4 hours to be exact! Many people just fell asleep so probably didn’t even know what was going on around them, but I was quite awake throughout the journey and had the pleasure of experiencing it all… First the speeding over bumpy patches of the road – nothing unusual… then honking and taking curves almost on two wheels – nothing unusual either… but then at one time we just started moving backwards? Meaning reversing on the motorway, in the darkness of course… We were backing up so slowly that it almost seemed as if we were searching for something… Have we lost something on the way??? It looked like we probably did lose a couple of screws or something like that as suddenly we heard a huge boom!, stopped straight after and were told to leave the bus… It looked like one of our tyres exploded… Nice! We waited by the road thinking (or rather hoping) that they would change the tyre (in the darkness??? Hmmm…) but it turned out to be an impossible task after all and after an hour or so later another bus picked us up… Even worse than the first one! This time I wasn’t so lucky and ended up on one of the additional beds – basically hanging in the air – thankfully we weren’t too far away from Ninh Binh! Damn it smelled in this bus! If I thought that the toilet stank in the first one, well… this one was something else! Even the driver didn’t bother to get into the toilet to do his business… he just unzipped his pants and without entering the cabin, started pissing on the floor of the toilet instead… Wow! That was just beyond shocking! Thankfully a while after they called out Ninh Binh and we were off the disgusting bus! But then wouldn’t we have the same kind of bus the night after??? After all it would be a bus from the same company coming from Hanoi… I was hoping (or more like praying) that the bus would be at least a bit less smelly… As it was a long journey to Hue… Still we would be worrying about that the next day as for now we had a night and a whole day to explore Ninh Binh!

Since it was after 10pm already, we knew we weren’t going to be searching for a place to sleep for too long, so once we were dropped off at a guesthouse recommended by LP, we headed straight there. They didn’t have any double rooms free, but there was no way we would be walking around looking for something else at that hour, so we just took a slightly larger room – for 6 people that is! Apparently it was a room for 3 people, but looking at the bed sizes you could easily fit 6 there. Straight away the owner of the guesthouse asked us about our plans for the next day and after looking at all the options and seeing the map of the surroundings we decided that renting two bikes with drivers would be the best option – maybe not the cheapest, but we had very limited time here, weren’t really up for cycling around and besides… we can take the easy option once in a while right? Spoiling ourselves just a little bit… 😊 Anyway… We had the next day sorted so all we could do now was rest… It’s definitely better sleeping in a huge bed rather than in a wobbly uncomfortable ‘bed’ in a stinky bus!

After breakfast we were picked up by our guides/drivers for the day and headed to a Bich Dong temple first. For some strange reason I thought Ninh Binh was a tiny village but it turned out it was a pretty big town with 1 million inhabitants… After zigzagging in between cars, bikes and buffalos (that’s right! In the middle of town!) we left Ninh Binh behind and through an empty road drove to the temple. Really nicely set, up on the hill as if attached to the rocks – almost like a hanging temple! A few shrines here and there, really peaceful and tranquil place. But we had still a few stops ahead of us so it was time to move on further. Next we headed to Tam Coc by the Ngo Dong river where we would cruise on a boat in between and under limestone karsts. There were plenty of boats around so we didn’t have to wait at all, jumped into one of them and were paddling down the river a few moments later – well we had two people on board who were paddling for us to be precise... One lovely older lady was sitting next to me while the other one was sitting at the back of the boat and was paddling using… her feet! Pretty good workout I would say! It seemed to be a common way to make the boats moving along the river. It was pretty hot that day so I knew that sunscreen and a hat just wouldn’t be enough, I would still get burned for sure! Thankfully I had umbrella with me though. So far this umbrella has been the best thing I’ve bought in Asia! 😊 It looked like we came to this place at the right time as there was quite a bit of traffic on the river the opposite way. It was a lovely, peaceful boat ride, still I have to
at Bich Dong temple - definitely has a bit of hanging monastery feel to Bich Dong temple - definitely has a bit of hanging monastery feel to Bich Dong temple - definitely has a bit of hanging monastery feel to it...

at Bich Dong temple - definitely has a bit of hanging monastery feel to it...
say that two hours (or maybe a little bit under that) was more than enough as sitting in one position during that time proved to be quite a challenge – I say the heat wasn’t helping either... Half way through our boat ride we got to a little market on the water it would seem as there were a few boats with all sorts of goodies around. We were pretty thirsty so were quite happy to see there was a place where we could get some drinks, even if they were slightly overpriced... We were asked whether we would buy something for our rowers as well and the hawker started giving some goodies to them, but we quickly stopped her and said we were willing to buy one thing but definitely not all! We shared a few laughs with the pushy hawker and were on our way back soon after. LP and many websites warn about this ‘scam’ as they call it as apparently whatever you buy for the rowers goes back to the seller eventually. Maybe not exactly a fair way of making money but then in the end nobody is forcing you to buy anything – it’s your choice! I for sure wasn’t feeling angry or any poorer for that matter either after buying a packet of biscuits for 30,000 dong ($1.50) – whatever happened to it later on… As we were turning around, another boat appeared from the tunnel… Wait a minute, these faces seemed familiar! What a nice surprise! It was the German couple from Sapa again – we already bumped into them in Halong Bay before. I guess it’s not surprising that many people go the same route… Their ‘driver’ seemed to be in a hurry and they overtook us later on, while we in a more relaxing pace rowed back to the boat station. At one point, another boat came so close to ours, that one of the ladies on our boat (the one sitting next to me) was hit in her hand with a paddle! No apology, no exchange of words, nothing at all actually… the other boat just moved on as if nothing happened. You could tell that our rower was in a lot of pain but she just bit her lip and we were off again. I would certainly scream back something if it was me who got hit, but she didn’t say anything at all, just seemed to be quite surprised that it happened at all! Poor thing! When we came back to the boat station we gave our ‘drivers’ a small tip (around a euro), but they seemed to be more than grateful and with big smiles waived us goodbye. I have read that people get quite frustrated that they ‘have to’ tip the rowers at the end of the boat trip as you buy the ticket for the boat ride after all, right? Well… I wonder how much from this ticket actually goes to the boat owners though… I say not too much at all, so probably the tips are their way of making money… Anyway we had a lovely time so we were more than happy to leave a tip…

Our bike drivers were waiting for us at the boat station and soon after we were off to another place – a pagoda at the top of the hill. We actually saw it from the boat and were thinking at that time that probably there would be a nice view from up there. It looked like we were going to find out how nice it was after all! Walking up the steps with this heat was quite a challenge, a very sweaty challenge to be precise! It certainly didn’t help that there was no wind whatsoever and it felt like it was close to 40C as well! We made it though and soon after the German couple made it there also! It turned out they were cycling the whole way! I love cycling but with 40C I have to say I was really happy we had motorbikes instead. Our Sapa friends asked us whether we tipped our rowing team and when we said we did, they said they did as well but their rower didn’t seem to be too happy with the tip at all… Hmmm…. After they said how much they tipped though, well… I wouldn’t be too happy either! They tipped him 2,000 dong ($0.10 that is!)… Ah well… The view was surely worth the climb! A stunning panorama of limestone karsts lined up along the river, really beautiful!

Soon after we were back on bikes and were heading for lunch. We ordered some pho ga (chicken noodle soup) and a beer and were happy to sit in a cool spot for a moment. Once we got our soup our German friends walked in to the restaurant as well. It looked like all the guides were taking their groups here. We were wondering where we were going to meet next but it turned out that was our last meeting in the end as we haven’t come across them since. A few more people showed up at the restaurant as well and as soon as the ‘clients’ were busy with their lunch, the guides took this opportunity to gamble a little bit on the side – they sat at a table further away from everyone else, took out the cards and the game begun. They surely love gambling in here as it wasn’t the first time we’ve seen it in Vietnam. We had a look around the restaurant and a few big jars in particular got our attention. Grant went to check them out first and after that I was sure I wasn’t going to look at them at all – baby goats floating in a jar is not something that I am dying to see for sure! 😞 After yummy lunch (just love these noodle soups – so simple yet tasty!) we headed to the last place on our itinerary – a floating village of Kenh Ga. We were supposed to take a motor boat from here and go around the village. Once we got there the boat didn’t want to start though. We didn’t really mind whether we would take this boat ride or not as the drive to this place was very interesting on its own – next to rice paddies, by a huge river which seemed to have spilled over its banks, through slightly flooded roads – I managed to get through them with my driver with our legs in the air, while Grant had to push the bike at one time, haha! In the end the owner of the boat managed to quickly repair it and we were on a river once again. What a strange village that was! When the owner of our guesthouse was trying to sell us the tour, he mentioned a visit to the floating village but I thought it would be something like the ones we saw in Halong Bay. It turned out to be something totally different though. Just a usual village with a big church and many brick buildings around but instead of a road in between the buildings there was a river there. Quite a few people seemed to be living on the boats along the river as well. Many people on the boats cruising around as well! Looking for… well… that’s still a mystery to me as they were pulling buckets full of pebbles from the water and just searching for something in between them… Whatever it was they were looking for, they sure were putting a lot of effort into it as they were carefully checking the buckets pebble by pebble. Really interesting place! I was happy we had a chance to see it in the end, despite fearing that our boat would break at any moment as all sorts of weird sounds were coming from the motor…

And that was it for the day. We went to all the places on our itinerary and were ready to head back to our guesthouse. We took a different route back, through some smaller villages and by some more limestone karsts rising up from rice paddies on the way. Really lovely ride, even though quite a rough one as well. Let me just say when we got back I was more than happy to get off the bike… Damn some parts of the road were bumpy! Once we were back at our guesthouse, we had a beer with our driver, had a nice meal and just waited for our bus. After all we’ve seen what was there to see in this place already so it was time to move further. Next stop: Hue!

Additional photos below
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22nd October 2013
a view of the river from Mua Cave pagoda

This is a lovely photo
I really like the shot.

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